In a casebook masquerading as a movie, Isabelle Huppert plays the title role of The Piano Teacher, an unfulfilled Viennese musician who is rotting internally. In total control of her classroom, she's hyper-sensitive toward nuances of classical composition - especially pieces by Schubert and Schumann, whom she treats as poets of madness.
Her father went insane and her mother (Annie Girardot) is smothering. The piano teacher's authority stems from her insight into music's undercurrents, and a temperament as warped and manipulative as her mum's.
"The Mother" - that's how Girardot's character is billed in the credits - has always exerted a claustrophobic, unbreakable influence over her child; she's a banshee of a stage mother who feeds on her daughter's status and obedience. The younger woman (Huppert was 45 at the time of filming) has over-compensated with a debased secret life. She commits genital self-mutilation, habituates peep-shows, spies on copulating couples at drive-ins, and spins fantasies of bondage for herself and vengeance on her mother. When a musical engineering student (Benoit Magimel), smitten with her virtuosity, enters class over her objections, she shuns his romantic overtures and instead enlists him in her scheme of erotic humiliation and household rupture. The result is domestic apocalypse.
In Piano, writer-director Michael Haneke conducts a clinic on the merger of outre feelings and daydreams, and I don't mean that as a compliment.
He and his cast do evoke simultaneously tortured and torturing mental states. But what's the sum of these collaborators' accomplishment beyond mustering a high-toned queasiness? Huppert is remarkable at conveying the anti-heroine's in-grown nature and fervid, skewed consciousness. She and Girardot create a nightmare push-pull bond, complete with slapping and hair-pulling and a genuinely shocking scene of arrested incest. And Magimel has the correct ratio of innocence to corruptibility as the pupil who wants to be the piano teacher's fair-haired boy. (He and Huppert won best performing prizes at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival; the movie won best picture.)
The movie is a long, heavy slog through sadomasochistic territory, without the visionary specificity of, say, Roman Polanski's Repulsion or Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Haneke has no gift for the imagery that would distill his content to its horrifying essence and make it germinate in people's consciousness. Yes, it is an achievement simply to catch an audience up in the radioactive force-field of these characters. But once these characters fade from the screen, their aura fades with them.
Reportedly, Haneke wanted to adapt the source novel of the same name, by Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, ever since it was published in 1983. With all this time to mull it over, he couldn't find a way to mirror the book's lightning narration, which draws you into the lead character's mental whirlpool. The book's fluidity better expresses the sporadic vulnerability and befuddlement of the piano teacher than the movie's stateliness. And because of its amplitude of metaphor and allusions, reading the book catalyzes multiple connections that even watching the film twice can't.
The reviewer for The New York Times Book Review called the novel "an exploration of fascism, not so much in the political sense as in the personal." Viewed that way, the story is a black-comic expansion on the question of how the same Austro-Germanic culture could have produced, say, Schubert and Schumann and Hitler. And as the novel's concepts widen, its descriptions remain charged and individual and gritty.
The movie both narrows in focus and gets more hazy in its emotional effects as the script reaches the anti-climax. By the end, all that anchors the film is Huppert's face. Somehow she bequeaths to the viewer the character's peripheral vision, which for minutes at a time peers around the obvious to the lyrical - or the unspeakable. But whenever that happens, Huppert's expressiveness inevitably hits the brick wall of director Haneke's grim earnestness.
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot and Benoit Magimel
Directed by Michael Haneke
Unrated (sex, nudity, rape)
Released by Kino
Running time 129 minutes (in French with English subtitles)